As the largest tropical forest on the planet, it functions as Earth’s respiratory system and is often described as the ‘lungs of the planet’.
However, with rising temperatures and deforestation, the Amazon Rainforest – which absorbs one-fourth of the carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbed by all the land mass on Earth – is currently confronting unprecedented devastation and stands at a tipping point.
It is grappling with extreme climate-change-led weather events, including escalating fires, record floods, and yet extreme droughts – coupled with continued deforestation – which together pose a severe threat to one of the world’s most precious resources and a climate injustice to its indigenous people.
The environmental repercussions extend far beyond the expansive 2.12 million square mile ecoregion, which is home to 35 million people and one in ten of Earth’s known species. Experts have warned that if deforestation and climate change continue at current levels, the world is headed for a disaster.
The Amazon region could become drier and drier, unable to support healthy habitats or croplands, general superintendent of the Foundation for Amazon Sustainability (FAS) Virgilio Viana told Al Arabiya English.
“In 2023, we, in the Amazon, are facing the most severe drought since 1903. Yet, we had a record flood two years ago. So, we are in the era of extreme climate, and it’s not unique to the Amazon. In southern Brazil, we’re now facing very extreme events, and likewise in many other parts of the world, such as the Arctic. It’s a worldwide process,” Viana said.
‘Carbon bomb ready to explode’
Viana said the Amazon rainforest is on the brink of a catastrophic environmental crisis, with a “carbon bomb” ready to explode, highlighting the alarming disconnect between declining deforestation rates and a surge in devastating forest fires.
“We have the largest stock of carbon in terms of biomass, and as this forest dries up, it becomes a key driver of forest fires,” Viana stated. “This year, we had an explosion of forest fires despite the fact that deforestation went down. It’s a contradiction because the impacts of climate change have increased the length of the dry season, causing forests to dry up, turning what would have been a small fire into a massive blaze.”
Viana said it is well known that the Amazon Rainforest is a key biome for the global climate, both in terms of being part of the problem and being part of the solution and safeguarding the crucial ecosystem should be a critical topic of COP28 talks in Dubai next week.
“This means deforestation is a relevant source of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a very, very dangerous scenario.”
This is far more than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UPCC) estimates, he said, which warns limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) is beyond reach.
“IPCC takes a sort of a middle ground,” said Viana, saying he recently met with NASA, which is publishing an upcoming paper saying that “1.5 °C is long one, 2 °C is basically impossible, and we’re moving towards 4.8 °C.”
He further said: “We have to move much, much faster in terms of reducing emissions from fossil fuels, which is the most important source of emissions as well as land use change. We are in the era of adaptation. Adaptation is not 20, 30, or 40 years from now. It’s now.”
Viana added: “So, in my view, the most important agenda for climate negotiations in Dubai is adaptation and climate injustice. We have to invest in resilience.”
A disconcerting truth
Viana said the Amazon Rainforest is also critical to being a solution to climate change – describing it as a “low-hanging fruit” in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions. The rainforest is not only home to an incredible diversity of species, but it also has a critical cooling effect on the planet because its trees channel heat high into the atmosphere.
In addition, forests absorb and store CO2 from the atmosphere, which is released back into the atmosphere when trees are cut and burned.
However, when rainforests are cut down, they emit large quantities of CO2 and other gases such as methane.
In a first-of-its initiative in 2021, a coalition of 31 scientists embarked upon an unprecedented endeavor: To meticulously calculate the equilibrium of natural and human-induced greenhouse gases within the vast expanse of the Amazon Basin.
The research team’s discovery revealed a disconcerting truth – the warming of the atmosphere, spurred by agents beyond the well-known CO2, surpasses the climate benefits derived from the Amazon’s CO2 absorption.
In simpler terms, human activities have transformed the Amazon Basin into a net emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Kristofer Covey, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor at Skidmore College, emphasized at the time that the natural emissions from ecosystems are not the culprits behind climate change. Rather, it is the myriad of human disturbances unfolding in the basin that contribute to this environmental crisis.
At the core of this transformation lies the delicate balance of Earth’s energy dynamics. The constant influx of solar energy sustains our planet, but climate-forcing elements, such as greenhouse gases, function as a regulatory blanket, trapping heat energy on Earth. The precarious tipping point occurs when the sun’s energy input exceeds the amount reflected back into space, resulting in a warming planet and a disrupted climate.
A profound degradation
Traditionally, a robust forest ecosystem serves as a natural carbon sink, absorbing CO2 and maintaining equilibrium among various climate-forcing factors. However, the Amazon, besieged by escalating logging, mining, dam construction, and widespread agricultural clearing (often involving fire), is experiencing a dramatic decline. One alarming study disclosed a staggering one-third reduction in aboveground plant tissue in the Amazon over the past decade, signaling a profound degradation of the once-thriving system.
By reducing deforestation, the Amazon can play a crucial role in mitigating climate change. Viana points to positive developments in Brazil’s efforts to curb deforestation, with a significant reduction observed in recent years.
“We have to remember that Brazil reduced deforestation between 2003 and 2012 significantly and was the single largest contributor in terms of reducing emissions worldwide. Then we had political changes, and we had the peak for about 10 years, from 2012 to 2022. Now, we have again begun a downward movement. So, there’s been a significant reduction – over 50 percent this year, compared to the same period last year. It’s positive in that sense, and it gives us hope that we can move towards zero deforestation,” Viana said.
Alarming consequences of air pollution
Highlighting the issue of climate injustice, Viana emphasizes the disproportionate impact on indigenous peoples who have contributed the least to climate change. He recounts his recent visit to the headwaters of the Amazon River in Peru, where a once-permanent glacier 5,000 meters above sea level has completely melted, leading to extreme water shortages for the local communities. The struggle for climate justice is intertwined with the protection of indigenous territories, which have historically shown lower deforestation rates compared to national parks.
Viana also highlighted the alarming consequences of air pollution, with indigenous communities suffering even more than residents in heavily polluted cities like Hotan or Delhi.
“The Amazon is now subject to air pollution, ranking as bad or even worse than some of the most polluted cities in the world. We were ranked number two globally after Kathmandu,” Viana revealed. “This has led to a huge crisis of air pollution, reinforcing the issue of climate injustice. Indigenous peoples are bearing the brunt of this environmental crisis, experiencing air pollution worse than even those living in crowded and polluted urban centers.”
Viana emphasized the urgent need for substantial investments to safeguard the Amazon by halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation while delivering sustainable development. Promoting an inclusive rural transformation and protecting and future-proofing the rights of indigenous and traditional communities are crucial. Drawing on his experience as the former State Secretary for Sustainable Development for the Amazon, he noted the lack of institutional capacity to tackle the escalating crisis, comparing it to regions where fires are frequent, such as California or parts of Europe.
“We don’t have the capacity to combat forest fires as people do in places where fires are frequent, like in California, Portugal, Spain, or France,” Viana explained. “This frequency is a new and traumatic experience for us, and the institutions are not adequately prepared.”
Players need to act now
Viana proposes a dual approach to address the crisis – one through private philanthropy and civil society organizations for swift action and the other through international cooperation and government-led initiatives. He stresses the need for reform in the functioning of funding agencies, making them more agile and responsive to the urgency of the situation.
Viana said now is the time for global nations to rally behind and endorse efforts to safeguard the Amazon. The highly industrialized nations, being consumers of goods from deforested regions, bear a distinct responsibility in this regard, he said.
However, players need to act now, he said, as the Amazon stands at the precipice of an environmental catastrophe with far-reaching global consequences.
Viana referred to comments made in July by UN chief Antonio Guterres, who pleaded for immediate radical action on climate change, saying that record-shattering temperatures this summer show the Earth has passed from its warming phase into an “era of global boiling.”
“So, we have to act quickly. This is why we should use this as an opportunity to mobilize our finances so we can have quick action,” he added.